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A budget is born

ELIZABETH HEFFNER
Staff Writer

While many residents are gearing up for the Fourth of July and other fun summer festivities next month, Lincoln County’s Board of Commissioners and county staff members are awaiting the start of the new fiscal year.
Less than a week away, the 2014-2015 Fiscal Year will begin July 1. And with a new fiscal year comes a new fiscal budget.
This year, the upcoming fiscal year’s budget was approved 3-2, with commissioners Carroll Mitchem and James Klein in opposition, during an impromptu work session immediately following their scheduled June 16 meeting.
While media outlets generally cover budget workshop sessions and scheduled county meetings, the months of preparation to create the proposed budget often is overlooked. Because of this, the public may be unaware of the extensive process necessary to create such a document, which, for Lincoln County, can span between 700-800 pages.
“The budget can be overwhelming because of the complexity and its volume,” County Manager Tracy Jackson said. “Each department is very different in terms of programs and services and the way they receive and spend their money. We look not only at how much money is needed (for the department) to operate, but whether there are regulations tied to that money.”
As county manager, Jackson serves as the top appointed official for Lincoln County, responsible for the majority of the county’s day-to-day administrative operations. In addition to overseeing the county departments and staff, Jackson is responsible for preparing, monitoring and executing the county’s fiscal budget. This includes submitting to the Board of Commissioners a proposed budget package, depicting options and recommendations for consideration and possible approval.
In order to make the budget process more manageable, Jackson, along with other county staff members, develop a series of small deadlines throughout the process.
“We treat it like a project,” Jackson said. “We set up a calendar and try to determine what the needs are.”
According to Jackson, Lincoln County’s director of finance, Deanna Rios, and Assistant County Manager Martha Lide are also heavily involved with the budget on a day-to-day basis as far as analysis and preparation. He added that the county’s human resources director, Audrey Setzer, also plays an important role in the budget from a payroll perspective, looking at salaries, employee benefits and retirements.
“Department heads also play an important role in researching costs and putting together their department’s budget as well,” he said.
The budget process begins with a budget retreat the December, prior to the start of the new fiscal year, where commissioners meet to determine the upcoming fiscal year’s goals and objectives. Commissioners typically set aside two days for the retreat. Depending on the pace of the discussion, the board has been known to conclude the retreat at the end of the first day.
“We carry forward with whatever themes carried from the budget retreat,” Jackson explained. “If something major comes up though, we’ll let the board know.”
From there, each department or agency head is presented with a budget preparation manual, which provides a list of deadlines each department is required to meet. According to Jackson, this manual and other budget materials are handed out during the first week of January. This year, department heads received a Feb. 3 deadline for their Departmental Capital Improvements Program Requests as well as a Feb. 14 deadline for all outside agency requests.
According to Jackson, this allows time for the county’s finance department to enter all of the budget requests into the system before Jackson, Lide and Rios meet with each department, outside agencies and fire districts. This year, the majority of the department and outside agency meetings were held throughout March, into early April, with the trio holding budget meetings with fire districts in late April.
The Board of Education’s deadlines are somewhat extended from other departments. This year, the Board of Education met with the Board of Commissioners on January 21. The General Fund revenues are then completed and submitted to the Board of Education on March 3, with the Board of Education submitting a final budget request on May 1.
Once all of the budget requests have been received, Jackson and Rios work together to balance the proposed budget and prepare the narrative explanations for the document before printing and distributing it to the county commissioners. This year, commissioners received the proposed budget on May 19 and held their first budget work session May 23. Jackson explained that presenting the budget a few days beforehand allows the commissioners a chance to identify any questions or concerns they made have.
“We try to get them as much information as possible to help them make the best decisions for the county and its citizens,” he said.
This year, county commissioners held scheduled budget workshop sessions on May 23 and June 4. After failing to approve the 2014-2015 Fiscal Year Budget and Capital Improvement Plan Ordinance at their June 16 meeting, commissioners decided to hold an impromptu budget workshop after completing the discussion of scheduled agenda items.
“The number of workshops vary on availability, schedules and the number of questions the county commissioners have,” Jackson said. “And sometimes, you don’t know until you get into the process as to what questions will be asked. But, from staff’s point of view, there weren’t a whole lot of surprises in terms of questions regarding revenue and expenditures.”
While the public is welcome to attend and observe the county’s budget workshop sessions, only a handful opted to attend this year. The lack of attendance, combined with the complexity of this government process can leave citizens in the dark as to the reasoning behind budget decisions.
“Unless citizens come to the workshops or know about budgeting through business experience or a nonprofit organization, they might not know too much about the process,” Jackson said. “Even then, government budgeting is somewhat different from business and nonprofit budgeting. I think citizens would be surprised to know that a lot of what we do is providing mandated services — all the things required for the county by the state and federal government.”
He continued by giving examples of the many services the Department of Social Services offers, along with providing citizens with a health department and a county jail.
With the upcoming fiscal year’s budget now approved, Jackson and his staff are given only a brief respite before they begin tackling preparations for the next budget retreat.
“Now, we will start looking at the budget process and fine-tuning it for the December 2014 Budget Retreat,” he said. “It will be different this year, because we’ll have two new board members.”
Those interested in learning more about the county budget should visit www.lincolncounty.gov and click on the “Government” link.

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